(This essay was originally published as “Beyond the ‘Battle Hymn,'” in the Newport Daily News on March 22, 2014.)
Julia Ward Howe, a talented, independent-minded woman of the 19th century—poet, writer, playwright, preacher, lecturer, and reform leader—spent much of her life at her “Oak Glen” country home in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
She is best remembered for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861. She traveled to Washington, DC, met President Abraham Lincoln, and visited military camps in the area. During these visits she heard the tune popular at the time, “John Brown’s Body,” celebrating his martyrdom for the anti-slavery cause. As she lay in her hotel bed early one morning, the words came to her. She explained: “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.'”
The poem was first published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February, 1862, and was quickly put to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” becoming an unofficial anthem of the Union. For it, she received a mere $5.00 from the magazine editor.
Howe’s other notable achievements are often forgotten. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time on many fronts. Even as a young woman, she clashed with her father and eventually her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, twenty years her senior, both of whom wished her to be the more conventional, deferential, domestically-oriented type of woman. A gifted writer, she achieved great literary success. By the age of 17, she was contributing to literary magazines. In 1852, she published Passion Flowers, dealing with Italian and Hungarian patriots, and in 1853, Words for the Hour. She soon became a regular contributor to the new periodical, The Atlantic Monthly. When she and her husband joined the anti-slavery crusade, she became an editor and writer for her husband’s journal, The Commonwealth. She also co-edited and wrote for The Woman’s Journal. She had many other published works, including: Sex and Education, Modern Society, Is Polite Society Polite?, Reminiscences, and two tragic plays Lenore and Hippolytus. Fluent in seven languages, she was the first woman elected to the Society of Arts and Letters.
While contributing to such causes as the abolition of slavery, education reform, and prison reform, her greatest energy was devoted to women’s suffrage. She wrote and lectured widely on it for most of her life both in the US and in England and eventually served as the president of the New England Woman’s Suffrage Association.
Howe was deeply distressed by the physical, social, and psychological devastation she had witnessed during the Civil War. With the wars of German Unification erupting in Europe, she called on women everywhere to oppose war in all its manifestations. Howe hoped to join women across nationalities in the cause of universal peace, issuing a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870.
Arise then …women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage
Our sons shall not be taken from us …
Her efforts helped to lay the foundation for the establishment of Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914.
This distinguished, national celebrity spent much of her life at her beloved country home, “Oak Glen,” now 745 Union Street, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The Howes bought the 4.7 acres, overlooking Lawton Valley, in 1852. She and her husband had homes in both Boston and Newport; however, they decided to establish this home “out in the country.” Other wealthy individuals like Cornelius Vanderbilt and H.A.C. Taylor, also had farms in Middletown or Portsmouth to grow crops and flowers and to maintain prize horses and livestock.
Oak Glen in later 19th century
At Oak Glen the Howes were primarily focused on their six children, outdoor activities, the reception of literary and artistic friends, and certainly their own work and interests. They lived there several months each year, sometimes as long as eight months. Their guests included famous people from the US as well as Europe, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George W. Curtis, Thomas Higginson, and Oscar Wilde, who were treated to picnics, sailing parties, and theatricals. Oak Glen must have come to be one of the centers of New England’s reform and intellectual movements of the later 19th century, with Julia continuing this after the death of her husband in 1876.
It was at Oak Glen in 1910 that Howe died. In summing up her life she stated: “I have written one poem which … is now sung South and North by the champions of free government. I have been accounted worthy to listen and to speak at the Boston Radical Club and at the Concord School of Philosophy. Lastly and chiefly I have had the honor of pleading for the slave when he was a slave, of helping to initiate the women’s movement … and of standing with illustrious champions of justice and freedom for woman’s suffrage when to do so was a thankless office involving public ridicule and private avoidance.” Some have referred to her as “The Queen of America.”